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Burma's junta promises democracy, but most are wary

The government's surprise announcement to hold a constitutional referendum is being met with deep skepticism.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 2008

Burmese hope: While many Burmese want economic and political change, they don't believe the government's plan for a constitutional referendum will usher in democratic reform.

Danna Harman

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Pakokku, Burma

The elderly monk is nervous. He paces the room, leans over an old TV set and slips in a "Tom and Jerry" DVD, raising the volume to an uncomfortable pitch. He peers out one window and then the next, fidgeting. He sits down, gets up again. Finally, he talks. But after all that, there is not much to say.

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The Burmese military junta's surprise announcement last week that it would hold a referendum on the still secret Constitution this May, setting the stage for elections in 2010, is being greeted – in a country long used to broken promises and tricky maneuvers – mainly with suspicion.

Many say they are not holding out hope for a government-led transition to democracy. But nor do they believe a new outpouring into the streets is imminent. "Change," says the elderly monk, speaking anonymously for security reasons, "will take a long time in coming."

Dozens of interviews with monks and opposition members – both inside and outside Burma (Myanmar) – paint a picture of a nation suffering from a dire economic situation and at the tail end of its characteristic patience with the military government. But it's also a nation that feels it lacks both the means to rise up or a leader to guide a revolution.

The announcement marks the first time the government has set dates to carry out stages of its so-called road map to democracy. And the elections, if held, would be the first since 1990, when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. But the results of that vote were ignored by the junta, and the occasion was used to scrap the old Constitution and place Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remains today – not a confidence inspiring precedent.

Meanwhile, the peaceful antigovernment marches in September, which began here, in Pakokku, a dusty town on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and spread across the country, were effectively and brutally crushed by the military regime. At least 30 people were killed in those protests, according to United Nations estimates, and thousands were detained, including monks. Other monks were "de-robed" or chased away from monasteries back to their villages. In Pakokku, about a quarter of the monks have yet to return.

Since September, according to Amnesty International, arrests have continued, and the country's almost 2,000 political prisoners remain unreachable – even by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Its activities in Burma were curtailed after the organization complained last year of the practice of using detainees as forced labor for the military.

A government ruse?

"We were so excited in September. We thought we were winning. People were clapping on the sides of the road and giving us water. We felt we would be free," says Zaw Maung Oo, a young activist who marched in Rangoon. "But we failed."

The new government announcement, he says, is a ruse. "We all think this is just a fake-out, to reduce international pressure and try and reduce our anger," he says. He worries the military will use the time to see who comes out to object to their new Constitution – and crack down on them. The elections, he says, will either never take place or will be a sham. A draft of the Constitution guidelines, released last year, shows it will codify the military's role as the preeminent power in the country.